"I’m very grateful to so many people who put in so much time to correct the mistakes that were made before."
By Ian Mulgrew for The Province
Eyes brimming with tears, Tomas Yebes left a New Westminster courthouse in his wheelchair, repeating over and over: “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”
Convicted of killing his two adopted sons in a 1982 Surrey house fire — and stunningly granted a new trial only late last week — Yebes was acquitted Thursday after an extraordinary 20-minute proceeding in B.C. Supreme Court.
Yebes was found guilty in 1983 of two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released on parole in February 1994.
He has always maintained his innocence, however, and roughly 10 years ago, the UBC Innocence Project took up his cause. Its investigation discovered expert evidence used at his trial was incompatible with today’s forensic science.
As a result, in 2019, Yebes applied for a ministerial review of his conviction.
An investigation by the Criminal Conviction Review Group led federal Justice Minister David Lametti to conclude only days ago there was a “reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice occurred” and the guilty verdicts couldn’t stand.
At the 77-year-old’s sudden, brief new trial, the clerk read the new indictment — two counts of second-degree murder involving Gabriel, seven, and Tommy, six.
In response to each charge, Yebes replied in a strong, clear voice: “Not guilty.”
Prosecutor Monte Ruttan then told the court: “The prosecution service is presenting no evidence and inviting the court to enter acquittals on both charges for Mr. Yebes.”
His lawyer Marilyn Sandford explained the background.
Back in 1982, Yebes and his wife at the time, Elvira, who had two daughters, were living apart.
Two years earlier, the couple was moved by the plight of underprivileged children and adopted two Chilean boys. It didn’t work out.
Elvira had difficulty dealing with them and, to give her space, Yebes and the boys moved to a townhouse.
It had been about six months and the costs were too much for Yebes, a hairdresser.
Yebes said he went to bed at 10 p.m. before being roused by the smell of smoke.
He said the boys were dead on a burning mattress and he called 9-1-1.
Sandford said the jury was misled into believing the boys were dead before the fire ignited and dismissed the presence of a lighter and the boys’ previous history of fire-setting, which strongly suggested the children lit the fire and died accidentally.
Yebes was convicted based on invalid expert evidence that suggested he or someone set the fire to cover up the murders.
“Had a jury heard the new expert evidence that the boys may have been alive for a short period after the fire started, and that the possible timeframes when the deaths occurred and when the fire was ignited were both quite broad, the case for homicide would have evaporated,” she emphasized.
Ironically, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected Yebes’ appeal in 1987, saying his conviction was not an “unreasonable verdict.”
The high bench said the B.C. Court of Appeal correctly decided there was evidence he had a motive to kill the children and had “the exclusive opportunity” to do so.
“He has led a productive life since his release from custody,” Sandford noted. “His two daughters, just children when their brothers died, have always believed in his innocence.”
In closing, she recited what Yebes said at his sentencing: “I would beg the police to not close the case, to (not) only use circumstantial evidence, but please use feelings and sensitivity. I understand it is hard work, but I beg.”
Sandford said Yebes turned to the prosecutor and continued: “I also realize you are doing your job, and although I know you have made a mistake, I hold no animosity. To my friends, they believe me. I beg them not to lose their faith because the truth will come out. I am innocent.”
His bitter-sweet vindication finally arrived.
“For 37 years, Mr. Yebes has lived under the shadow of the stigma of the most terrible of crimes, murder of his own children,” Sandford intoned.
“Since his release from custody 26 years ago, Mr. Yebes has had his liberty curtailed by the restrictions that are imposed on ‘lifers’ released on parole. Today is the day that he spoke about at his sentencing hearing, 37 years ago, the day he never lost faith would come, the day when the justice system has recognized what he and those close to him have always known — that he is an innocent man.”
After ensuring Ruttan had nothing to add, Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes said: “Mr. Yebes, I find you not guilty on count one. I find you not guilty on court two.
“I would say something about the circumstances, but your counsel has spoken extremely well on your behalf and has conveyed your message as well. So I’ll say nothing more, I would simply be repeating.”
The new trial was over.
“Thank you all,” Yebes said as he was wheeled out of the courtroom, eyes welling, voice cracking.
“I’m very grateful to so many people who put in so much time to correct the mistakes that were made before. That’s all I have to say now. That I’m very hopeful and thankful. I have waited a long time. Thank you. Thank you. I never expected it. I can’t believe it.”